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When Is a Coup Not a Coup?

If you walk into Grand Central Terminal from Lexington Avenue, you will see a clock on the wall above the entrance to the Main Concourse. Below, carved in the stone, it says, “Eastern Standard Time.” That was Grand Central’s year-round time zone when it opened in 1913. But these days, from mid-March to early November, the clock displays eastern daylight time, not standard time.

The lesson here, obviously, is be careful what you carve in stone.

Putting something into law is carving it in stone. Laws are always far easier to enact than they are to repeal. And we have just had a beautiful example of why putting something into law is often a dumb thing to do. Since 1961, when the Foreign Assistance Act was signed, the law requires that should a foreign country experience a coup d’état, U.S. aid to that country must cease. This is fine in theory. This country would very much like the whole world to be governed by democratic governments elected in free and fair elections. We could cut the military budget by ninety percent if it were.

But that is not the way the whole world works and we have to live with reality. The purpose of U.S. foreign aid is not to convince the world that we are a bunch of nice guys but to advance American interests. And sometimes interests other than fostering democratic government must take priority. During the Cold War, we had to make nice with some very unsavory regimes.

What happened in Egypt on July 5 was as clearly a coup as anything could be. The Egyptian military, employing force majeure, overthrew the first democratically elected government in Egyptian history and took the president into custody, where he remains, incommunicado. If that wasn’t a coup, whatever could be? But for valid reasons of state, the Obama administration has been flatly refusing to call a coup a coup. To be sure, the Morsi government had been democratically elected, but so had Hitler and the Nazi Party in Germany in 1933. And, like the Nazis, once in office, the Morsi government immediately began subverting democracy at every turn. Given what we know now, would we have objected to the Wehrmacht giving Hitler the boot in 1934? It would have been a coup, for sure, but thank God for it. After all, both Hitler and Morsi were, in effect, carrying out their own coups d’état from within.

Politicians have often had to be semantically artful. In 1941, as FDR slowly maneuvered the country into joining the allies in a war the country did not want to fight but which Roosevelt knew had to be fought, he agreed to take over the defense of Iceland from the hard-pressed British. But he had a problem: he had promised the American people he would not station U.S. forces outside North America.  What to do? Simple: Roosevelt just declared that Iceland was actually part of North America. It was geographically doubtful to say the least, but politically sound.

The Obama administration is anything but artful when it comes to foreign policy. They have managed to alienate just about every political faction in Egypt. But they’re right not to call a coup a coup in this case.


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